Jason Collins made history when he became the first openly gay NBA player after he was checked into the game Sunday between the L.A. Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets. He gets all the credit in the world for his historic act of courage. Yet it would have been a lot harder without the groundwork laid by these eight heroes, all of whom came out shortly after retirement inspired the national conversation.
And with more and more high school and college athletes coming out, most notably NFL hopeful Michael Sam, space for top echelon athletes is opening up everywhere. Let’s hope Collins is just the first of many to pay homage to these pioneers, young and old alike.
Scroll down to see eight gay professional team sports athletes who came out after retiring, blazing the way for players like Collins and Sam to live more openly.
Former NFL running back David Kopay became one of the first professional athletes to come out in 1975, three years after he retired. In 1977, The David Kopay Story, a biography written with Perry Deane Young, made the bestseller list. Earlier this month, Kopay penned an open letter to NFL hopeful Michael Sam published on OutSports.
The former NY Giants lineman became the second NFL player to come out after he retired in 1992. He was also the first NFL player to come out as HIV positive. In 2006, Simmons told the NY Daily News in 2006 that “in the NFL, there is nothing worse than being gay. You can beat your wife, but you better not be gay.” Simmons passed away earlier this week.
Outfielder Billy Bean retired from Major League baseball in 1995, after a successful eight year career. He came out four years later in 1999. The story made the front page of the New York Times and the cover of The Advocate. In 2003, Bean’s memoir Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and out of Major League Baseball, written with Queerty’s editorial director, Chris Bull, became a national bestseller.
Jerry Smith played tight end for the Washington Redskins from 1965 to 1977. Though he never publicly came out during his lifetime, his sexuality was confirmed by former teammate, David Kopay, after Smith’s death from AIDS in 1986. Earlier this year, ESPN released a documentary about Smith and his struggles with the closet, as well as his brief romance with Kopay.
Glenn Burke played for the L.A. Dodgers and the Oakland A’s from 1976 through 1979. He was the first MLB player to come out to his teammates during his career, despite the homophobic taunting of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. In 1995, he told the New York Times, “Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have. But I wasn’t changing.”
Burke died of AIDS on May 30, 1995.
Dave Pallone was a MLB umpire for 10 years. In 1988, he was forced to resign after getting into a physical confrontation with Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose on the field. Later that year, Pallone was outed by the New York Post. In 1990, he published a bestselling memoir, Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball, about his experiences as a gay man in MLB. In 2013, he was one of the first inductees to the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.
Hawaiian native Esera Tuaolo played as a defensive tackle in the NFL for nine years before retiring in 1999. In 2002, he came out on HBO’s Real Sports, making him the third former NFLer to come out publicly. Afterwards, he shared his story on shows including Oprah and The Tyra Banks Show, before releasing a memoir in 2006.
The 6’10 retired NBA player came out in 2007 in Man in the Middle, (also written with Queerty’s Chris Bull) becoming the first former NBA player to do so and earning him the title of “one of the world’s most high-profile gay athletes” by the BBC. Today Amaechi works as both an educator and broadcaster in Europe and the United States.